If all else fails, the St. Louis Blues could help their chances of gaining a playoff berth in the Honda West Division if they hired a person to stand at the airport and NOT let Mark Stone, Conor Garland, Anthony Stolarz, Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri ever step foot onto St. Louis soil.
They have been Blues’ killers this season (and last).
While the team is still right in the mix for that fourth and final playoff spot, there is plenty of blame for the Blues’ subpar season that saw them go just better than .500 this season. The excuses are your run-of-the-mill, annual complaints of bad coaching, terrible goaltending, not enough heart, and soft, “fragile” players. But this year is different in that the Blues can point to five “villains” who screwed up what was supposed to be a magical run to the Cup – Buzz Killingtons if you were.
Here are Five Villains Who Crushed The Blues Souls This Season:
1. Mark Stone – Vegas Golden Knights – Not Invited to Bozak’s Parties
Blues fans got to hating Stone early this season when, on January 26, he laid out Tyler Bozak on a questionable hit. Bozak ended up hitting his head on the ice and got a concussion that made him miss 21 of the Blues’ games – nearly half the season.
Immediately, fans called for Stone’s head on a platter. Bozak was a hugely important piece of the St. Louis attack. He brings leadership, skill and serves as a de facto on-ice quarterback for the team. Losing him sent the offense into a tailspin.
The hit was considered dirty by many and pretty unnecessary. Yet, the NHL declined to levy any punishment against Stone.
Stone has just been a handful for the Blues. In that January 26 game, he fed Max Pacioretty for all the goals of his hat trick that night in a 5-4 shootout win for Vegas. He had two goals in a 5-4 overtime win over the Blues on March 12. On March 22, he netted two goals and added an assist in a 5-1 manhandling of St. Louis on March 13. He has an assist in the Knights’ 6-1 win at Enterprise Center on April 5. The Blues kept Stone off the scoring sheet in their 3-1 win on April 7.
The hit to Bozak and his subsequent upper-body injury wreaked havoc on the Blues sputtering offense at a time when the team was just starting to gain some traction in the standings.
“It was a very unnecessary play, and I hope the league is going to look at it,” Blues forward David Perron told The Athletic after the game. “It was not very smart. It was great to see (Justin) Faulker do that. I think (Brayden Schenn) was close (to fighting) too. A couple other guys were not happy with it.” (‘After review, NHL won’t suspend Vegas’ Mark Stone for hit on Blues’ Tyler Bozak,’ The Athletic, 1/27/21)
The hit prompted a scuffle between Vegas enforcer Ryan Reaves and Kyle Clifford, but Stone skated out of St. Louis with a bunch of points in his pocket and an MVP candidacy on his mind.
2. Conor Garland – Arizona Coyotes – What a Pesky Little Player
If the Blues end up losing out on the fourth playoff berth in the West to the Arizona Coyotes, they can only blame themselves. And maybe blame Garland, too.
Garland, a Boston native, was the Coyotes’ fifth-round draft pick in 2015. He worked his way through the system to become one of Arizona’s marquee stars. During the NHL Trade Deadline, his name was mentioned as a possible trade piece, but the deadline came and went without him being moved. The Blues wish he had moved before he rolled into town.
Against the Blues, he’s scored three goals and added five assists in eight games this season. He has been a playmaker for the Coyotes when they step up against the Blues.
“The Arizona Coyotes‘ winger is giving fans in the desert something to howl about,” The Hockey Writers wrote in a March 2021 article. “The problem is, others are noticing Garland’s play as well. With the trade deadline fast approaching, playoff-bound clubs would love to add a young talent like Garland. But should Arizona part with their rising star? The answer is ‘no’.”
Coyotes’ fans are glad Garland was kept in the fold, because he has tremendous playmaking abilities.
“The line showed no liabilities when it wreaked havoc during the unprecedented seven-game series … Nick Schmaltz, Garland and St. Louis area product Clayton Keller combined for nine goals, 11 assists and were plus-12 over those seven games,” with Garland keying the offensive attack. (‘Blues notebook: Coyotes line keeps Blues in short leash,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/17/21).
“I just don’t think we played well enough,” Blues captain O’Reilly told the Associated Press following a 4-2 shootout loss to Arizona on February 8. “We didn’t out-compete them. It’s embarrassing. We just lost three in a row at home to that team, just sparked them to give them that much.”
Garland tied the Feb. 8 game with a vicious one-timer that blew past Binnington. Coach Craig Berube has been impressed with Garland.
“Say what you will about the offensively limited Coyotes (then 4-5-1), but they always seem to show up to work against the Blues,” wrote Blues insider Jim Thomas in the Post-Dispatch in early February. “… On the second goal, Garland sped around Parayko on the outside and then cut sharply to the net. Binnington stopped Garland’s shot from the doorstep, but Schmaltz was there to tuck in the rebound for a 2-0 lead with 2:12 left in the opening period.”
“That Garland line does a great job,” Berube told the AP. “They’re hard to contain, they’re quick, cutbacks, and some things like that.”
3. Anthony Stolarz – Anaheim Ducks – Who Is This Guy Again?
On March 28 at Enterprise Center, making only his fifth start of the season, backup Stolarz stopped 38 of 40 shots he faced and even had an assist on Josh Manson’s overtime goal in a 3-2 win. The Blues used a familiar script in dropping another opportunity to gain valuable points in the ultra-competitive West.
Keyed by two first-period goals by O’Reilly and Tarasenko, St. Louis saw Stolarz and the Ducks battle back to cut the lead to 2-1 on Cam Fowler’s third goal of the year. Then the unthinkable happened when the Ducks scored to tie it up at 2-2 early in the third period on Adam Henrique’s 10th goal of the year.
In the overtime period, Manson took an outlet pass from Stolarz and then Jakob Silfverberg to beat starter Jordan Binnington, who finished the game making 21 of 24 saves.
Stolarz, a replacement for the injured John Gibson, freed Manson, making a rare overtime appearance, for the game-winning goal 1:42 into the extra period, rallying the Ducks for a 3-2 victory over the Blues, according to a story in The Orange County Register. Stolarz made 38 saves for his first win in more than two years. (‘Ducks’ Anthony Stolarz, Josh Manson work overtime to beat the Blues,’ The Orange County Register, 3/28/21).
“I kind of gave him a rocket of a pass,” Stolarz told the Register of his first NHL assist. “It wasn’t the flattest thing, but he did a great job of picking it up, driving wide and chipping it over the goalie’s glove. It was a long time coming. I was excited for him and excited for me at the same time.”
Stolarz was hardly a shining young star for the Ducks, having slogged through 31 NHL games in brief stints with the Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers and now the Ducks. His role is to spell starter John Gibson. Playing the Blues turned into a huge confidence-builder for Stolarz.
“I had some people tell me I’d never step on the NHL ice again,” Stolarz told The Athletic after the game. “But to be able to go out there and compete with the guys, just lay it all on the line, it felt great.” (‘‘It was a long time coming’: Ducks’ Anthony Stolarz quiets doubters with a win and an assist,’ The Athletic, 3/29/21).
The loss stung because the Blues had been mired in a massive slump that saw St. Louis drop eight of its previous 10 games before forcing the Ducks into overtime. That set up the Stolarz heroics and kept the Blues plummeting in the West. They lost three more games before finally breaking out of their slump with a 3-1 win over Vegas on April 7. A 9-1 trashing of the Minnesota Wild followed, and then the Blues won their third straight – a 3-2 overtime squeaker over the Wild.
However, the team has seemingly never been the same since that huge hit to their confidence – on a night when this nameless backup goalie stood tall and stymied the Blues’ $43 million scoring lines.
4. Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avalanche – You Just Laugh at His Amazing Goals
Whenever MacKinnon, the Avs’ star, comes to St. Louis, he feasts on the Blues’ porous defense and capitalizes on every mistake. His dominance over the Blues – hell, the league for that matter – is almost comical.
In a 3-2 nail biter, MacKinnon pumped in two goals and Brandon Saad added another to lead the Avs to another impressive victory. Against the Blues this season, MacKinnon has four goals and three assists. Earlier this season, MacKinnon scored his 200th NHL goal. He had an 11-game point streak heading in this week’s slate of games.
If there is any consolation prize, it is that Binnington and St. Louis defenseman Marco Scandella will likely make MacKinnon’s 2021 highlight reel. Taking the puck across the blue line, MacKinnon sped past Scandella and buried the puck from a crazy angle into a nearly impossible spot, beating Binnington five-hole for the goal. The goalie didn’t know what hit him. That goal deflated the Blues.
“We had a couple power-play goals which are huge,” MacKinnon told the Denver Post. “We held the lead throughout the game, which is important. Obviously, that’s a really good team. They’re desperate. We’re right back at it tonight but it’s great to see (backup goalie Jonas Johanssen) get the first one with the Avs. He looked great tonight.” (‘Avalanche beats Blues 3-2 with backup goalie, extends point streak to 13 games,’ Denver Post, 4/3/21).
In that game, MacKinnon scored Colorado’s second and third goals. He gave the Avs a 2-1 lead at 14:43 of the first period during the Avs’ second power play, making a superstar move from the goal line and flipping the puck over goalie Jordan Binnington’s left shoulder.
It’s not just the Blues who have hard feelings for MacKinnon. The entire league feels his fury each game. And it is not just MacKinnon. The NHL opposition is feeling the burn of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog as well.
“You can only hope to contain Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog,” The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford wrote. “The three have combined for 146 points this season and MacKinnon (53), Rantanen (52) and Landeskog (41) each rank among the top 21 point-producers in the NHL.”
“You need five guys on the ice that when they get out there,” Berube told The Athletic. “You’ve got to understand the situation and make sure you manage the puck properly. You know, make them play in their own end as much as you can. They obviously have the puck a lot, and when they do, you’ve got to check hard, you’ve to have numbers around the puck. It’s tough, but you’ve got to have five guys that are doing a good job out there checking them. You need everybody.”
The Blues have not had an answer to MacKinnon so far this season.
5. The Pandemic/The Hockey Bubble/Nazem Kadri
It is difficult to pinpoint just when the Blues’ troubles shifted from sunshine and lollipops to their current state of troubled affairs. The team was decimated by injuries this year to important players like Bozak, Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Parayko. The Blues also were handed the crushing news of season-ending injuries to both Carl Gunnarsson and Oskar Sundqvist. The losses of team iron men Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester to career-ending injuries had a profoundly negative impact on the team.
But going even beyond that, you’d have to look at the period of January through March 2020 – before the pandemic shut down sports and society in general, as being quite favorable for the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues were riding high, posting one of the best records in the league at 42-19-10 at the time. They were fresh off their 2019 Stanley Cup win, and with captain Alex Pietrangelo guiding the club, they were playing like the defending champions they were for the start of the 2020 season.
Then, in short order, Bouwmeester suffered a serious cardiac event that ultimately forced his retirement. The NHL season was put on indefinite hold. A new playoff system was developed and would be played in a socially distanced setting – a “bubble” without fans in the stands. The Blues were assigned to Edmonton, seemingly a billion miles away from their adoring fanbase.
When the Blues came back to play, they, like other teams, were forced into that NHL bubble, an unfamiliar place. They entered their first game of the round-robin in 2020 against the Avalanche, who used every second of the clock to beat the Blues 2-1 in that first playoff game in the bubble. Kadri scored the game-winner on a power play with just a fraction of a second remaining. His deciding goal officially was listed as coming at 19:59, but it didn’t really matter.
The goal was a dagger of sorts – a symbolic blade to the heart that set the Blues on a rocky course for the next year. The loss hurt the Blues’ seeding in the postseason. It also set the course for a disappointing playoff effort against the Vancouver Canucks, who ousted St. Louis in the first round four games to two. The once-mighty Blues were showing chinks in their armor. The pandemic changed everything for everyone, so no tears for St. Louis here.
However, one must wonder what might have been, had the tragic pandemic – the ‘Vid – not changed the course of the NHL last season. Before they were beaten down, stoned and stabbed by the NHL, the Blues were kings.
Now, they get beat by the Kings – one of the many teams to do so lately. Maybe they should divert some flights?
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1